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Bruce Springsteen’s “High Hopes”

As people observe all the time, Bruce Springsteen is a lot like Chris Christie.

I just told a fib; Bruce and Chris aren’t likened to one another hardly at all.  But bear with me a moment.

Just a couple of years ago when I was a sophomore in high school, I found myself shoehorned in the back of an SUV, riding home with a bunch of kids after a tennis tournament.  Top 40 radio ticked off the miles for us when all of a sudden a song from the speakers sounded different from all the previous bubblegum pop.  Suddenly I gave an unnecessarily loud shout to everyone else in the vehicle, because I recognized that yelling was an optimum means of being quickly heard: “What song is this?  Who’s singing?”  No one offered an answer until the tennis coach, driving, responded, “Oh, that’s Bruce Springsteen.  It’s a new song from him.”  Thus began my decades long fandom with the Boss, although not five seconds into my brumance was my reverie broken by a coed in the car sneering, “He’s so old.”  I’ve heard that same sentiment registered a couple times since then, sister; Bruce isn’t getting any younger, but then again neither are we.

Next to the Spring of my senior year.  I finally had the chance to buy my first Springsteen album on the day it was to be released.  Never mind that it was 1995’s Greatest Hits, since any fan can tell you that appended to the end of that set were a clutch of newly recorded tracks with the sadly disbanded but miraculously reconvened E Street Band.  Terrified that the Sam Goody at the Esplanade Mall in suburban New Orleans would instantly sell out of new Bruce, but elated that the release day coincided with spring break, I paced outside the music store for a half an hour that Tuesday morning until the steel awning yawned open at 10:00am.  Slightly discombobulated by the marked lack of any stampede, I nevertheless tore to the front counter and breathlessly asked, “Do you have any copies left of Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits?”  My earnestness was countered with a dyspeptic squint as the clerk pawed in the direction of a nearby rack.  “I hate Bruce Springsteen,” he mumbled.  Hurt, I’d recollected myself by the time I returned to checkout, and with all the seriousness of “Badlands,” I intoned, “I’m going to buy this Bruce album, and you’re going to take my money, by which transaction you’ll know that your salary is being paid by a musician you despise.”  I allowed  myself a chortle before I concluded the homily: “It’s like you’re in a Springsteen song and you don’t even know it!”  Satisfied that I’d set this feckless clerk on a lifelong trajectory of moral improvement, I nevertheless chafed as a sauntered out of Sam Goody that morning.  “How could a worker in a record store hate Bruce?” I wondered silently, before narrowing my mind’s eye and ruing, “This would never happen in New Jersey.”  Everybody in New Jersey loves Bruce Springsteen.

Enter Chris Christie, even if a particularly wide berth is required here.  Having lived Jersey for over a year now, I find that my out-of-state friends tend to assume that everybody (or at least a great majority) loves our good governor.  Once you pay the toll to get within state lines, however, you find a different reality.  Christie fandom often gives way to Christie fatigue, apparently.  So it is with Springsteen, and perhaps more so.  I’ll run across an occasional Bruce fan, but for each one of those, I meet 50 for whom Springsteen is at best nonthreatening but more likely deeply irritating.  Much like gridlock on a bridge, Bruce fatigue has gone systemic, and no new album of his can avoid the freighted largesse of his legend.

Tuesday, January 14 is the release date of Springsteen’s High Hopes, his 18th studio album, and I’ll be at Abbie Road in Audubon to pick it up that morning.  At least Bob, Abbie Road’s owner, will understand me.  But sadly, I don’t understand High Hopes.  It’s not a very good album.

On the positive side, it certainly sounds great.  If the 80’s and 90’s saw Springsteen cut albums of often stirring songwriting saddled to monochromatic sonic palettes–hence the not unmerited “all Bruce songs sound the same” complaint–beginning with 2002’s The Rising, the Boss has almost entirely enlisted outside producers to add variety and texture to his songs.  Even when the material has been subpar (or abortive, as in the unfortunate case of Working on a Dream), recent Bruce albums have consistently comported themselves with engaging music.  Ron Aniello, the primary producer of High Hopes, has taken the raw material of these songs and added flourishes (a banjo or fiddle here, a drum loop or bagpipe there) that may very well surprise anyone burdened by Bruce fatigue.  The title track is actually a little funky–check out the horn chart that kicks in after the first verse–“Heaven’s Wall” contains both a gospel stomp and a gospel chorus, and “Frankie Fell in Love” (the album’s best song, and not coincidentally the most exuberant and seemingly effortless) somehow channels both doo-wop and honky tonk in an under three minute package.  Of course there are echoes older material on High Hopes, and how can there not be, such as the train track rhythm and keyboard of “Down in the Hole” recalling Born in the USA’s “I’m On Fire,” but nothing on the new album plays as mere nostalgic pastiche.  Mix in some Irish-inflected folk rock (“This is Your Sword”), industrial metal courtesy of Tom Morello (rerecorded versions of older tunes “41 Shots” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad”), and moody synth pop (“Harry’s Place,” also cover of Suicide’s “Dream Baby Dream”), and you have Springsteen’s most stylistically diverse (and possibly for that reason sonically satisfying) offering since his second album, 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.  Which is saying something.

But the lyrics suck.  It’s been remarked that success is the kiss of death to comedians’ remaining funny, because no one anymore will tell them to pare down their material in order to make it better.  I can picture, similarly, Springsteen demoing the songs on High Hopes to his musical cohorts and being met by a chorus of, “This stuff is boss, Boss!” before high fives are exchanged, cutoff vests are donned, and beefcake poses struck.  Au contraire: my bossdom for an editor!  Granted, it’s unwise to judge a song by its title, but would you say the chances are good that numbers called “Hunter of Invisible Game” or “This is Your Sword” would come across as lyrically heavy handed, overcooked, and embarrassing?  Well, does Courtney Cox look good with short hair?   QED.

The great strength of the first two decades of Springsteen’s writing was his specificity of detail.  It’s not just any girl in “Jungleland” but one sitting on the hood of an old Dodge and drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain; the way off the straight and narrow in “Atlantic City” begins with “meeting this guy” and “doing a little favor for him”; whatever promise life might offer to the protagonist in “The River” ends with his receiving a union card and a wedding coat.  Instead on High Hopes, writerly details have been subsumed by an endless procession of “faith,” “strength,” “courage,” “righteousness,” “darkness,” “blood,” and “dust.”  Not coincidentally, the stronger songs on the new release are the most concrete, like the Vietnam lament that focuses upon “The Wall” at the Vietnam memorial or the old bottle of wine left on a hotel room table in “Just Like Fire Would.”  (Incidentally, if I could switch into my pastoral hat for a moment, one of the brilliant aspects of the Christian story is the way that the universal is bound up in the particular, and vice versa.  Faith, righteousness, darkness, blood, dust, and so on aren’t merely abstract constructions but come together in the person of Jesus, the crucified and resurrected king.  As a result, the Christian hope is both bracingly large and also practically embodied.)

Fans have puzzled over the provenance of High Hopes in that it includes a mixture of rerecordings of previously released material, newly polished outtakes, and–gasp!–three covers.  In my opinion,  the problem with the covers isn’t that they’re on the record but that they’re better than many of the Bruce originals.   I’ll take the young Bruce with the rhyming dictionary, which he admitted he used for his first album, over Bruce the bland generalist every time.  Meanwhile, I suffer through the “biblical imagery” of “Heaven’s Wall,” which consists of a chorus line of “raise your hand” repeated 384 times plus a random smattering of bible trivia sprinkled in.  I raise my hand to question what the song is at all about, besides the lifting of an upper appendage.  Even the details imbued in “Harry’s Place,” a song about a small time pusherman, are ostensibly half-baked under closer inspection: Bruce concludes the tune by singing portentously, “If he didn’t exist, it’d all go on just the same/Nobody knows his number, nobody knows his name.”  It’s not a coda on the level of “this is the way the word ends/not with a bang but with a whimper” but an effective closing couplet nonetheless.  The astute listener, however, will remind Bruce that we in fact do know the name of this drug dealer; he’s already been called “Harry” numerous times throughout the track, and helpfully his name is in the title of the damn song.

Alas.  To balance my negative assessment of High Hopes, I do respect Bruce as an artist that this late into his career he still seeks to make music that is relevant, edgy, and popular.  Most acts his age have given up, haven’t they?  Oldies like Dylan, Neil Young, Clapton, and Van Morrison have retreated into an endless string of genre exercises, Sir Paul apes his own past, the Stones release cynical product only to keep touring, Billy Joel just tours.  Surely one can’t be as successful at rock and roll as Bruce without a commensurately large ego, but I can’t think of anyone that shares Bruce’s vintage who also presses so relentlessly to make music that’s important and new.  Aside from cult artists like Nick Lowe or Leonard Cohen who never really experienced mega-success, Paul Simon is the only other musician who comes to my mind that can match the late-career drive of Springsteen.  (From the other direction, U2 is close behind Bruce in tenure and in desire to make Big Statements, but the Boss is in a different, better category altogether.  It’s my job to know these things; I can explain over a beer, if you buy me one.)  Nevertheless, High Hopes fails transcend its cobbled-together origins and cohere into a single, purposeful record.  I’ll see you on release day for the next one.

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Bruce Springsteen, “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle”

Bruce Springsteen, The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle

Humanity is ultimately summarized by two themes: life and death.  The rest is just drapery.  What else is there?  Even heavy metals like Eros and Ploutos eventually melt into Zoe and Thanatos.  What is it that we fear if not death, the fear behind other fears, and what fuels our deepest hopes and laments besides, irreducibly, life?  Nothing against Eros, Ploutos, or drapery, but art that doesn’t get around to grappling with death and life is sooner or later unsatisfying.  That’s why I love Bruce Springsteen music.  It’s death and life, all the time.

Which is also why some people hate the Boss.  The Bruce haters, even ones that agree with his politics, will cite his grim determination to continually address Big Themes, give a state-of-the-union address with every album, and play working man blues despite his millions as reasons to respect Springsteen (at best) more than enjoy him.  Case in point was the 12.12.12. Sandy benefit last week; aside from a closing “Born to Run” singalong with a Bon Jovi lookalike, Bruce’s setlist consisted of topically appropriate but less well known tunes all drawn from the past ten years.  Surely casual fans were yelling for “Freebird” instead, but the Boss had work to do.  “Heavy lies the crown on Bruce Springsteen’s head,” a music critic has recently opined.

My 20 gigs of Bruce on my iPad notwithstanding, I’ll grant the premise that sometimes the Boss can turn unenjoyably dour.  Springsteen’s six studio albums of the last decade have brilliant moments—and at least Magic and We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions stand nearly side by side with “classic” Bruce albums—but they also have their share of clunky moments.  For example, on the Rising, the 2002 meditation upon 9/11, it’s fine for Springsteen to commemorate the sacrifices of NYFD firefighters, but when he sings about their going up the stairs “into their smokey graves,” one wishes for less literalism and more metaphor.  It’s life and death, sure, but the song doesn’t need to scream, “This is about life and death!”  (And the less one says about Working on a Dream, the better.  I’m still waiting for Bruce to fess up and tell a reporter, “That song was the centerpiece of a nursery rhyme project that went horribly, horribly wrong.  I trashed the album and told Columbia that it was ‘in the can,’ but the label thought I was telling them to release the thing.  Then Obama started asking me to play the song at his rallies, and I knew I was screwed.”)

Those that may be interested in hearing a Bruce Springsteen whose crown weighs less heavy should check out his second album, 1972′s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.  It’s all life and death, but all of it obliquely.

It’s impossible for a pop singer to be totally unselfconscious—the ego thing—but there’s still a difference in musical writing and execution when an artist believes she’s making a record that will be heard by hundreds of people versus by millions.  With the former, you’ll hear an unvarnished earnestness (despite however much irony may stick to the ribs) that sales success will erase.  The Wild, the Innocent is the audience’s last chance to hear Bruce Springsteen before he became BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN.  His next record, Born to Run, drove him to the top of the charts, as he knew it would.  But what Born to Run gains in breadth of vision, it loses in intimacy.  Nick Hornby once remarked about “Thunder Road,” the lead track to Born to Run, that redemption songs shouldn’t include the word “redemption” in them.   He’s probably right. The Wild, the Innocent, on the other hand, finds a young artist swinging for the fences without thinking anyone was taking notice.  The result is a record at once looser and more ruminative than anything Springsteen has released subsequently, save perhaps Nebraska, which not coincidentally was recorded as a set of demos not intended for public release.  I think of how Greil Marcus described The Basement Tapes, and how his words apply here: “So much of the basement tapes are the purest form of speech: simple free speech, ordinary free speech, nonsensical free speech, not heroic free speech.  Cryptic free speech, a voice that can say almost anything while seeming to say almost nothing, in secret, with music that as it was made presumed no audience but its players and perhaps its ancestors, a secret public.”  Such is The Wild, the Innocent, as we hear free speech about boardwalks, alley fights, street urchins, hustling musicians, and circuses.  It’s an album that’s found its secret public who happens to hear Zoe and Thanatos whisper through its grooves.  Big themes are always best left buried in the details.

Personal aside: I discovered The Wild, the Innocent in high school and loved it without quite knowing why.  While my friends were going whole hog into grunge—not that there’s anything wrong with that—I was checking out older music.  My brother-in-law went to college in the 1970′s and had Bruce’s first four albums on vinyl.  I liked The Wild, the Innocent’s LP cover the best, so I asked him to dub that record onto cassette.  For the first half of 10th grade, I listened to two thirds of The Wild, the Innocent every day driving to and from school, picking up where I’d left off each morning.  I memorized not only the songs but also the from-vinyl skips and pops on my taped copy; my clean CD version doesn’t sound the same without them.  You only listen to music in high school once, kids.

The two best known songs on The Wild, the Innocent are “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).”  They may also be the two least resonant tracks on the album for me.  That’s not to argue the party anthem par excellence, “Rosalita,” is a bad song, however.  It’s an “Only the Good Die Young”-style plea for the girl to come out of the house and go out with the guy, complete with enough guitars, horns, fist pumps, and interesting turns that it’s 7:05 running time feels too short.  Bruce used it for years as a set closer for good reason.  Then again, party anthems will only ever be party anthems.  “Sandy” is “Rosalita’s” quiet counterpart, all acoustic guitars, tremolo leads, droopy accordions, and strings.  Thematically, it slows down “Born to Run” to 33 r.p.m.  The guy wants the girl to cut her losses, quit the local scene, and hop in the car toward something better.  (Later on into The Wild, the Innocent, the elegiac “Incident on 57th Street” strikes a similar pose.)  What makes Sandy strange and compelling, though, is that Springsteen is far more romantically inclined toward the beach town he’s leaving behind than the girl he’s taking with him.  Listeners learn very little about Sandy but lots about Asbury Park—fireworks over “little Eden,” fast “switchblade lovers,” boys “from the casino dancing with their shirts open,” fortune tellers, a waitress “bopping down the beach with the radio,” and so on.  Ostensibly a love song, the more deeply one listens to “Sandy,” the less clear it is that the singer is pulling out of town to win.  Born to run bleeds into born to lose, and things start to get interesting.

“Kitty’s Back” is all Van Morrison via the Jersey Shore.  The early 1970′s were possibly the best time to listen to the radio, when stations would play rock back to back with funk, then soul, then pop, then back again.  Individual songs were also elastic enough to capture various genres without sounding contrived, and “Kitty’s Back” is one of the best style-benders.  Anyone whining that all Bruce Springsteen songs sound alike should listen to this track.  It begins with a bluesy, languid guitar line with some lazy horns that sound like they’d protest if pressed to played any faster.  The first verse begins with Bruce painting an alley rat street scene against funk organ before the music breaks into an uptown shuffle.  The song stays all over the map for the duration, including a long instrumental break that owes more than a little debt to “Moondance.”  “Kitty’s” lyrics are also worth more than a glance; the titular character has burned out on her hometown and instead hooked up with a “city dude,” only to come back again.  The song finishes with a slow build as Springsteen keeps looking down the alley, wondering if Kitty will come back to town.  The high point musically is when she does, while the singer sits back and sighs, “What can I do?”  The horns lift up one last time before “Kitty’s Back” comes to a climax with a concert ending.

It would be easy enough to write off “Kitty’s Back” as an early ‘70′s pastiche with its influences too overt and the story off Broadway, but such a criticism misunderstands why we listen to pop music in the first place, namely that the small stuff matters and is even beautiful.  (Greil Marcus once located the power of Otis Redding’s “Respect”—the original version, equaled by Aretha’s stratospheric interpretation but not necessarily bettered—in its earthiness.  Otis isn’t asking for the stars, just a little respect when he gets home.)  The fact that Kitty’s come back isn’t really anything in itself and not a story worth telling, but the fact that someone is singing triumphally  about it makes it so, and it becomes beautiful.  Kitty’s departure was Thanatos, and her return Zoe.

The end of side one of The Wild, the Innocent supplies the album’s weirdest track, and the one that had left me cold for years, “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.”  If the calliope organ of a Mississippi steamer were divided into three equal parts and moved to Jersey, it would be the acoustic guitar, tuba, and accordion of this song.  The title isn’t a lark, either: this really is a song about a kid named Billy joining the circus.  His “Circus Story” is stuffed with characters; in five minutes, the listener meets the machinist, the fire eater, the sword swallower, the fat lady Missy Bimbo, and many others.  Billy enters this self-contained world with a sense of haunted wonder, and as he’s finally asked by the circus manager if he wants to “try the big top,” it’s a question full of love and fear.  Billy becomes an Ichabod Gatsby.

It’s taken a long time, but “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” strikes me now as the truest song on the album, as the crazy carnival characters become somehow more recognizable to me as my friends, neighbors, and myself.  Long before Springsteen’s populist commitments became explicit in his songs, “Wild Billy’s Circus Song” is populist and American in the best but most terrifying sense.  Springsteen confronts us with the notion that our community is irreducibly strange but for that same reason altogether lovely.  (I nominate “Kitty’s Back” to be the official song of Collingswood.)  A line in the middle of the song gives both the contradiction and the promise of the American (and human) endeavor: “The highway’s haunted by carnival sounds.”  It’s not a poetic statement, but it’s profound in its fusing of our desire to ramble off alone (the highway) and the conviction that we can never be alone, nor should we be (the carnival).  The road leads us into the circus, even if the last line, “All aboard, Nebraska’s our next stop,” suggests that the circus leads us back to the road.  Properly living out the script of this song means not that we resolve this tension but find joy and discover beauty in its dialectic.

The bookends to The Wild, the Innocent tie all of this life and death together.  The album kicks off with “The E Street Shuffle,” which Springsteen wrote as a semi-autobiography of his band.  (Yes, Bruce’s group takes its name from the location of an old garage where they rehearsed: E St. in Belmar.)   After a discordant horn-tuning that attempts to show that Springsteen isn’t taking himself too seriously, the musicians snap into an uptempo funk groove, and Bruce is all swagger up through the soul freakout coda.  If lifted from the context of the entire record, though, “The E Street Shuffle” is little more than six (or a hundred) characters in search of an author; Power Thirteen, Little Angel, Easy Joe are only the beginning of an endless stream of street people to come and go, aimlessly gravitating to a party.  But the first half of the first line sets up the drama of everything to follow, as Springsteen exclaims, “Sparks fly on E Street.”  That’s life, but it’s not just that there’s some kind of light on E Street; sparks are light that come from friction or collision.  Sparks are both life and death.  Same with the song’s conclusion, when melancholy intrudes on the party as we’re told that “sweet summer nights turn into summer dreams.”  You can’t have the dreams without the details to seed and ground them, but the dreams themselves gain both beauty and fragility in their transformation.  Summer’s over before you know it.

“New York City Serenade” ends everything.  In an album of long songs, it’s the longest at 10 minutes, in part due to David Sancious’ piano introduction that’s reflective but also much more sad and less romantic than the previous songs.  That extended opening lends a depth to the two young lovers that promenade around the Big Apple.  Clarence Clemons’ saxophone imparts some jaunt to their journey, and strings sweetness, although in oblique language the pair separates, and the guy remarks, “Sometimes you just gotta walk on.”  After all of the strange community encountered in The Wild, the Innocent, that particular line would at best be a false victory.  The urban cowboy may ride into the sunset, but he’s alone.  Midway through “New York City Serenade,” it sounds as if this couple were dancing on graves, but then it seems that at least one of them is going there.  We’ve heard sound and fury, it may have signified something, but in the end death wins.

Original versions of “New York City Serenade” halted there, but deep into the recording process for The Wild, the Innocent Springsteen appended another song to it, a slightly obtuse piece about a jazz crooner busking on the corner.  All the character does is sing, over and over again.  However, when placed at the end of “Serenade” (and the album as a whole), the singing jazz man is the counter to the broken community just before (i.e., the lover just walking on).  Unlike just about everyone else in The Wild, the Innocent, this jazz singer isn’t named.  As the album’s camera pans across the city one last time, it’s the one completely at the edge of the frame who receives the final close up and gets in the last word.  The music lulls one last time, and then Springsteen proclaims that his final protagonist is “singing, singing,” and he repeats the line countless times as the music swells.

Why does he sing?  Because as humans we want life to win, and that’s part of the victory.  (This is also why I’m a Christian: Jesus, eternally whole yet broken for us, sings our broken songs to life.)  “New York City Serenade” (and The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle with it) fittingly and finally closes, after the singer keeps singing, with a gentle violin and piano coda that properly gathers the album into rest.  By some inspiration, over the fading strains Springsteen does something remarkable: he whispers.  There are a handful of notions that I’d defend at great cost, and one of them is that the last two minutes of “New York City Serenade” are the best 120 seconds of recorded music in the history of the world.  Aside from a couple of phrases, you won’t be able to make out what Bruce is saying (and believe me, I’ve tried).  I think that the secret of the universe is in those raspings, but the key wouldn’t be to decipher the words.  It’s instead that through the whispers comes the intimation that after all that there is, there is still something worth saying, and it’s a song.  That it’s indecipherable also makes sense, if you think about it, and that’s about as far as we can go.   Although indecipherable doesn’t mean the same thing as unknowable: what if there is an author to the song, and a singer who will one day make the secret known?  What if the song has already begun?

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“Can’t Buy Me Love”

Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America

Periodically, there are bands I avoid simply because everyone else loves them.  For example, Mumford & Sons (and before them Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, The Shins, Coldplay, etc.) may make great music, but can they really be that good?  I imagine their catalog to include such titles as“Sheep Off a Cliff,” “Lemmings,” “Kool Aid,” and “We’re Big in Europe!”, but I wouldn’t really know for sure.  I’ll hear Mumford’s hits in a doctor’s office soon enough.  “Moon river!”

(When I was in tenth grade world religions class, Mrs. Robertson explained that there were four kinds of people in the world—builders, traditionalists, idealists, and individualists—and subsequently asked each of us to signify which we were.  No one raised their hand for builder, no one for traditionalist, I was the only idealist, but then everyone else said they were individualists.  My attempt to remark upon the irony of the whole situation failed to gain traction, as all the individualists resented my nonconformity.   I consoled myself with the knowledge that there’s a difference between pridefulness and simple realism.)

The ur-band of my popularity aversion has been the Beatles.  (But Jim, why the love for Elvis, you might ask?  Answer: because he was so popular that everyone ended up hating him.  This never happened with the Fab Four.)  I’ve known some stone cold music lovers who worship the Beatles, but also plenty of buy-CD’s-at-Starbucks types too.  50,000,000 Beatles fans can’t be right, can they?

Add to all this that I grew up listening to “classic rock” radio in the 1990′s, where all the Beatles stations ever played was the soft stuff—“Let It Be,” “Strawberry Fields,” “Yellow Submarine,” and so on.  Worst of all, “Hey Jude” seemed to taunt me harder with every false fade out, while my anti-Beatle desultory philippics became less and less brief.  These guys were many things, but they weren’t rock and roll.  And hey, there’s no “me” in “iconoclastic.”

Years later, I got pregnant with my fourth child.  Rather, my wife got pregnant, but I was involved, and therefore I deserved a pick-me-up present to self.  Looking around for something suitable, I realized that the Beatles mono boxed set, released a couple of years earlier, was just beginning to come down in price.  I remembered the respect that I had for certain music afficionado friends who revered the Beatles, and I decided to sink my bid with them.

This fourth pregnancy was particularly difficult physically, however, and it included some particularly grueling backrubs I had to administer to others.  My fingers were aching so badly that I bought an Amazon Kindle.  Armed with one-click purchasing power, one of the first e-books I bought was Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America.  Amazon reviews ushered me towards this one as the best of (a large) bunch.  Thus I began to listen to every Beatles song one by one, with Gould’s book as a guide to each.

First the Beatles, then the book.

(I like Mumford & Sons, by the way.  It would have ruined my intro to have admitted it earlier, though.)

For the band: they’re actually rock and roll.  How could a secret this big have been kept underground for so long?  For years I’ve amassed 1960′s garage rock collections (Nuggets, Nuggets II, Pebbles, Back from the Grave, band comps, label comps, regional comps), and about each one I’d say, “These guys blow the Beatles away!”  The Beatles are better.  Don’t you hate it when you’ve been wrong about something for years?  Some groups may have rocked harder, but John, Paul, George, and Ringo rocked smarter, more melodically, and more consistently than any of them.  (I could blame myself for making such an egregiously wrong call for so many years, but instead I’ll blame ‘90′s classic rock radio for mindlessly gravitating toward the flaccid.)  One of the garage compilations I enjoy is called Garage Beat ‘66; all fine and good, except that the Beatles were garage beating as early as 1963, and earlier if you count Hamburg.  Even their later albums contain tracks that need to be played loud.  I’m a convert.  Shuffling through songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” John’s “Twist and Shout,” “Tell Me Why,” “Ticket to Ride,” “The Word” would keep me happy for a long time.  I’m still not ready to nuzzle up to some of the later, slower Beatles tunes, but at least I now understand them better—the Beatles went to schmaltz by the end because they were bored and had already exhausted the rock and roll idiom.  (Alternatively, you might listen to “Hey Jude” not as an exercise in anthem but in exhaustion; it plays much better that way.)

Which leads me to say, I’m sure that for many Beatles fans that are roughly the same age as the band itself, listening to these albums brings a sad nostalgia that recalls an era that’s lost forever.  I myself feel sadness in listening to the Beatles, but for a different reason.  They were great fans of rock and roll but also synthesizers of the nascent tradition.  None of the 1950′s American rockers really knew what they were doing, except maybe for Buddy Holly (who was, not coincidentally, the Beatles foremost ‘50′s influence).  Bands contemporary to the Beatles tended to see themselves as carrying on the cause, whether the Stones or Kinks in Britain or garage bands stateside, but somehow the Beatles achieved a balance between a deep appreciation for rock and roll and also a certain critical distance that allowed them like no other to improve upon the form.  50′s Elvis was mannered but unknowing; the Beatles were mannered but the opposite, and the difference palpably registers.  Consequently, the meat of the Beatles’ catalog play as songs of innocence and as songs of experience at the same time—the earlier sides more the former, and the later, the latter—the beauty and toughness of which together add a depth of melancholy to their recordings.  (Dylan’s joke upon the world was that he was rarely serious, while the Beatles’ curse was that they were rarely joking, even when they were very seriously trying.)

Not surprisingly, their center could not hold.  The Beatles gave us rock and roll’s apotheosis, and also (necessarily) its last will and testament.  There were plenty of intra- and extra-band factors that caused the Beatles to crumble, and Gould catalogs them well in Can’t Buy Me Love, but what made their albums wonderful also sealed their demise.  Even without the pressures and stresses, the Beatles would have fallen; the fruit itself would have weighed the bough to breaking eventually.

All of this makes me think of Jesus, but not because the Beatles are him (nor John the anti-Christ, for that matter, despite fundamentalist screeds to the contrary).  Jesus was the only one whose experience didn’t taint his innocence, and that’s an innocence that he shares with us, the all-too-experienced.  In him, innocence and experience no longer stand in tension anymore; the one enhances and deepens the other.  With this in mind, I’m then able to listen to the Beatles not only with melancholy but with hope that the bough will become unbroken once more.

Now to Can’t Buy Me Love, the book.  It’s my first Beatles tome, but hopefully I’ve read enough volumes about other artists to be able to identify the poser writers.  Gould isn’t one of them.  In fact, he writes the best kind of pop music history, which combines facts, bio, musical analysis, and cultural reflection into one.  By and large, the worst offenders here skip the analysis and cultural significance and just go for the juicy personal bits.  Gould instead takes the higher road.  (Although if you wade into Can’t Buy Me Love seeking ammo against Paul on behalf of John, you’ll find it.  But you’ll also find ammo against John, not to mention scads of unflattering stories about Yoko.  Yoko, it’s hard to be a sympathetic character when you come across as completely the contrary.  Perhaps she and Colonel Tom will share a hotel room in Dante’s inferno?)

Not only does Gould tell you exactly what power chord George Harrison strikes at the beginning of “A Hard Day’s Night”—plus oodles of other geek-out music factoids from the Beatles’ catalog—but he communicates why any of this mattered to us, and still does.  When the Beatles’ broke in the States with “Please Please Me,” they didn’t sin into a vacuum: the previous fall, JFK had been killed, and TV enabled a generation of young people to mourn communally in a way never before possible.  Against that shared anomie, the Beatles brought sunshine.  One could do what-ifs forever, but Gould makes a plausible case that had not the knoll become grassy, the Beatles may not have been the Beatles.  Fascinating stuff, and a music- or bio-only approach wouldn’t have turned it up.

Intriguing as well to me is Gould’s recounting of the cultural context of 1960′s hipsterism in Britain.  It’s striking to me that even back then, the Mods, the Teds, and so on were already aping previous trends in ironic fashion.  I don’t intend that statement as a knee-jerk “nothing new under the sun” type of thing; it’s only that between the older generation in England that wrote off the Beatles as pandering and/or prefabricated, younger Brits that went in for the Beatles nevertheless listened to them with some detachment and were mesmerized by their celebrity as much as their craft.  Gould remarks,
“Even as significant numbers of readers, viewers, and listeners found themselves drawn to unexpectedly appealing qualities in the Beatles’ music and their public personalities, they assumed that somewhere, somehow, the group’s fame was being expertly manufactured, and that their principal talent lay not in their ability as musicians and performers, but rather in their ability as celebrities to command the attention of the press and the public. This explains why, from the moment it began, the question that dogged the Beatles and their phenomenon was the question that applies to all hoaxes, spells, and popular delusions: How long will it last?”
The tragic thing about living in a fallen world is that to ask the question, “How long will it last?”, is also to know the answer.  Most of the Beatles’ audience was never able to listen to their music as John, Paul, George, and Ringo did to their heroes: as new.  Something has made it bad.

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“Feelin’ Bluesy”

Peter Guralnick, Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the “King of the Delta Blues Singers”
Greil Marcus, “Robert Johnson,” in Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music
Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings
People joke about Elvis still being alive.  I believe so strongly that the King is still around that I make jokes about his death.

That’s not true, the part about me thinking Elvis never kicked the can.  Anyone and everyone around Elvis the couple years before he died would tell you that it was a wonder he didn’t pass away sooner.  And besides, if Elvis were alive, it wouldn’t fit his story: an idiot savant who does one thing well (sing) walks into the right man’s studio at the right time in 1954, records “That’s All Right,” and unleashes a power upon the world that he only vaguely grasps—if he had grasped it, he wouldn’t and couldn’t have sung it.  Year after year later, the more Elvis tries to sing, a) the more poorly he does so, b) the more remote or forgotten his brilliance seems, and c) the more he becomes his own grotesque caricature.   Elvis’ downfall was that he couldn’t escape the conviction that he was his own morality play, all the while blind to the fact that his was actually a tragedy.   His decline was too perfect not to be consumed by it.  Elvis had to die, so of course he’s still dead.

The old, dead bluesman Robert Johnson is the one that may yet be around.  He died in 1938 at 27 years old, but he was a man of mystery even before his death; since then, he’s become the largest enigma in 20th century popular music.

Consider: Robert Johnson released only eleven records (78 singles) in his lifetime, and they didn’t sell very well.  Still, many considered him the greatest blues performer of his generation, although others were skeptical of his talents.  Robert Johnson was murdered by poisoning, but there are differing accounts as to the murderer and motive; was it a juke joint owner whose wife Johnson preyed upon, a jealous husband, or an accident?  Johnson is buried in three different places, each claiming it’s the one.  We do have his birth certificate, except that it was found 30 years after he died.  He was never interviewed during his life, and contemporaries that spoke of him decades later gave widely varying accounts of him: he was boisterous, he was withdrawn, he performed with bands, he preferred playing solo, he’d stay in one city for a long time, he was always train hopping somewhere else, he was underrated, he was overrated, he was a best friend, he was a rascal.  (All of Johnson’s contemporaries are dead now, too.)  As white college students rediscovered blues music in general and Johnson 78′s specifically in the 1960′s, Columbia issued an LP of his sides; Johnson was then declared “King of the Delta Blues Singers.”  But why did some blues singers that actually performed in the old Delta barely remember him, even if others lionized him?

Is Robert Johnson simply a product of revisionist history?  Were his singles themselves mastered at the wrong speed, so that we really have no idea what he sounded like?  Why was a major and supposedly authoritative biography of Robert Johnson, in the making since the 1970′s, never published?  How is it that the liner notes that accompanied Columbia’s 1990 CD box set of Johnson’s recordings are considered full of falsities by many other blues scholars?   Are the two known photographs of Johnson really him, and what to make of the new one that surfaced in 2008, which may or may not be authentic?

Oh, and the only thing that Robert Johnson’s friends could agree upon about him is that he made a deal with the Devil at the crossroads.  At least no one questions whether he sold his soul in order to learn guitar.

If anyone would fake his death just to laugh at the decades of reflection upon him to follow, it would be Robert Johnson.  Who was this guy?   It’s fitting that such a mysterious presence lingers on so long in our collective, musical unconscious: only a person that never lived can never die.

In truth, so little can be established about Robert Johnson that scholars’ opinions about him reveal more about the latter than the former.  Nevertheless, we still have these 20-odd songs recorded (and presumably written by) a man named “Robert Johnson,” and those tracks are chilling.  Songs like his “Me and the Devil Blues” leave little to the imagination but much for us to fear.  On the other hand, a lyric such as “I have a bird to whistle, and I have a bird to sing / I’ve got a woman I’m loving, but she don’t mean a thing” (“Stones in My Passway”) combines pathos with an exquisite delicacy and lightness of feeling that serves to highlight the heartbreak that creaks through the melody.

My two favorite resources for learning more about Robert Johnson are Peter Guralnick’s Searching for Robert Johnson: The Life and Legend of the “King of the Delta Blues Singers” and Johnson’s eponymous chapter in Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.  Guralnick offers a brief account of Johnson with a whiff of romance and mystery, while Marcus majors on the romance and mystery while sprinkling in a little fact.  Take both of them and call me in the morning.

If you spend some time with Johnson’s songs, two aspects immediately grab you: alienation and space.  The two go together.  No one has ever communicated the sense of being alone and yet made it so personal and singular like Robert Johnson.  Marcus comments, “The power of [Robert Johnson’s] music comes in part from Johnson’s ability to shape the loneliness and chaos of his betrayal, or ours.  Listening to Johnson’s songs, one almost feels at home in [a] desolate America; one feels able to take some strength from it, right along with the promises we could not give up if we wanted to.”  At the same time, it’s the very isolation of his songs that opens the vistas to larger questions; Marcus again: “Robert Johnson lived with. . . intensity, and he asked old questions: What is our place in the world?  Why are we cursed with the power to want more than we can have?  What separates men and women from each other?  Why must we suffer guilt not only for our sins, but for the failure of our best hopes?”  These are good questions, ones which Johnson doesn’t attempt to answer, although he’s either crazy or brilliant (or both) to raise them.

Many scholars, including some religious ones, have attempted to frame Robert Johnson’s blues in some type of spiritual, or even Christian, system.  I believe these endeavors to be highly misguided.  I have no idea what Johnson the man believed, and it’s not my place to guess, but his music only shows Christianity in a photo-negative; with his lyrics and music, Johnson paints a picture of nothing more than a vacuum, albeit a vacuum well suited to be filled by Christ.  Marcus is correct in writing that “Johnson’s vision was of a world without salvation, redemption, or rest; it was a vision he resisted, laughed at, to which he gave himself over, but most of all it was a vision he pursued.  He walked his road like a failed, orphaned Puritan, looking for women and a good night, but never convinced, whether he found such things or not, that they really were what he wanted, and so framing his tales with old echoes of sin and damnation.”  The blues of Robert Johnson create a world that God has left behind and which the Devil now owns.

Well, if this is true of Robert Johnson, what should I say about it?  Ought I to proclaim, “Don’t listen to him, he’s tetched!”?  Not at all; I’d have trouble completely disavowing any art as resonant as Johnson’s.  Instead, I’d suggest that few have excelled like Robert Johnson at portraying the Fall.   What’s more, he never exults in a broken world for long; even at his most bawdy, Johnson’s songs of release are filled with regret.  Greil Marcus understands this when he writes, “All the beauty of the world and all the terror of losing it is there. . . Robert Johnson’s music is proof that beauty can be wrung from the terror itself.  When Johnson sang his darkest songs, terror was a fact, beauty only a glimmer; but that glimmer, and its dying away, lie beneath everything else, beneath all the images that hit home and make a home.”  I’d want to follow up with Marcus, however, or Johnson, and ask, “If our world is only darkness, why are we terrified of losing beauty?”  Or Marcus again, “The moments of perfect pleasure in Johnson’s songs, and the beauty of those songs, remind one that it is not the simple presence of evil that is unbearable; what is unbearable is the impossibility of reconciling the facts of evil with the beauty of the world.”  But I’d wonder, “But why then does beauty exist at all?  Doesn’t Robert Johnson’s darkness only make sense in the context of a world that God created as good and beautiful?”

Which brings us to the cross of Jesus.  The cross tells us many things: Our good world is worth sacrificing for.  Suffering, pain, sorrow, and sin are not illusions but realities that demand a reckoning.  God finally deals with evil in such way that he absorbs its pain and price in himself (Jesus crucified) and yet triumphs over it (Jesus resurrected).  A new world of beauty is coming, and has already begun.

Robert Johnson gives us a world without Jesus, but still a world that cries out for him.

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“Dead Elvis”

Greil Marcus, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession
Two years ago, Sony Music released a box set of Elvis Presley music that purported finally to have everything: all 711 original Elvis masters released in his lifetime plus 103 rarities on 30 CD’s, a 240-page hardback book, and a “display case.”  According to the Sony website, “THE COMPLETE ELVIS PRESLEY MASTERS is an indispensable piece of music history and the one collection no true connoisseur should be without.”  All told, THE COMPLETE ELVIS PRESLEY MASTERS could be mine for $749.00, not counting tax and shipping.

The website description had me with “connoisseur.”  Am I an Elvis connoisseur?  Answer: did Elvis love his mama?  So, I began to wonder to myself, Even though at last count I already have 419 of the 814 songs on THE COMPLETE ELVIS PRESLEY MASTERS, don’t I still need the remaining 395?  Aren’t my 419 remastered Elvis songs the old remasters compared to the new remasters?  Could there be hidden treasures within such as yet unprocured Elvis tunes as “Yoga Is As Yoga Does,” “No Room To Rhumba in a Sports Car,” and “Song of the Shrimp”?  Would it be ok to ask my family not to eat on days beginning with “T” and “S” in order to free up the cash to buy this set?

Evidently, I haven’t named and claimed enough dough to justify the expense of 30 more Elvis CD’s, albeit with commemorative book and display case.  For the moment, I’ll just have to admit that I don’t have what it takes to be an Elvis connoisseur and settle for “aficionado” or (worse) “dilettante.”  The fact remains, however, that I’m often obsessed with Elvis Presley—not with Elvis the man, but with the music of Elvis, and even more powerfully, the idea of Elvis.

Given this fixation, Greil Marcus’s Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession immediately grabbed me.  Dead Elvis isn’t a biography of the King—for bio purposes, try Peter Guralnick’s wonderful two volume work—as much as a rumination on his troubled legacy.  Everyone knows Elvis, but how many people like his music?  If so few in fact do (or can name more than a couple of his songs), however, why does everyone know about Elvis and have an opinion about him?  As the years have trickled by,  Elvis has turned into the ultimate interstate car accident that obligates compulsive rubbernecking.  We watch with a mix of fascination that it happened, and condescension that we were able to avoid it.  Worst of all in this case is the sinking, sad knowledge that the accident couldn’t have been avoided; it’s hard to imagine a world in which this accident hadn’t occurred.  Elvis carries with him a tragic inevitability that is larger than the man himself, or even than his music.

Is it crazy for me to say that in some mysterious way Elvis is America?  Marcus wouldn’t think so.  He writes,
I found, or anyway decided, that Elvis contained more of America—had swallowed whole more of its contradictions and paradoxes—than any other figure I could think of; I found that he was a great, original artist; and I found that neither of these propositions was generally understood. . . I understood Elvis not as a human being, but as a force, as a kind of necessity: that is, the necessity existing in every culture that leads it to produce a perfect, all-inclusive metaphor for itself.  This, I tried to find a way to say safely, was what Herman Melville attempted to do with his white whale, but this is what Elvis turned out to be.  Or, rather, turned himself into.  Or, maybe, agreed to become.  And because such a triumph had to combine absolute determination and self-conscious ambition with utter ease, with the grace of one to whom all good things come naturally, I imagined a special dispensation for Elvis Presley, or, really, read it into the artifacts of his career: that to make all this work, to make this metaphor completely, transcendently American, it would be free.  In other words, this would of necessity be a Faustian bargain, but someone else—who cared who?—would pick up the tab.
If you peel back the layers from Elvis the movie star or from Elvis the strung out, fat Vegas lizard and instead listen to his Sun recordings and Memphis sessions, or watch his 1950′s TV appearances and the comeback special, you’ll find something strangely and absolutely irreducible.  His 1955 “Mystery Train” compresses the emotional history of at least this country into two and a half minutes, which would have been amazing enough, but then right at the end of the song, Elvis laughs!  The cackle is astonishing—doesn’t Elvis realize what he had just recorded?  Doesn’t he care?  Is it all just a game?  The astounding and infuriating thing about it is that Elvis sang “Mystery Train” as if life and death itself were rumbling around the tracks but then jokingly shrugged it all off as if it were nothing, and he meant both.  For Marcus, it’s this contradiction that enables Elvis as Moby-Dick to have swallowed America whole.

Dead Elvis brilliantly fingers the paradox that I’ve felt for a long time: Elvis is omnipresent but universally misunderstood, neither of which is mere coincidence.  As for the former, of course Elvis is everywhere; no pop star in the last fifty years has truly come close to dominating disparate streams of popular culture, or selling as many records, as he has.  But with the latter, it’s easier to dismiss Elvis as the original tabloid celebrity than to ask fundamental questions about why his music cut so close to the bone.  Comparing the best Elvis cuts again with Moby-Dick and Lincoln’s second inaugural address, here’s Marcus’s take:
With each of these examples there is a presentation, an acting out, a fantasy, a performance, not of what it means to be American—to be a creature of history, the inheritor of certain crimes, wars, ideas, landscapes—but rather a presentation, an acting out, a fantasy of what the deepest and most extreme possibilities and dangers of our national identity are.  We read, or we listen, or with Lincoln we read and we imagine ourselves listening, then and there, on the spot, and we gasp.  We get it.  We feel ennobled and a little scared, or very scared, because we are being shown what we could be, because we realize what we are, and what we are not.  We pull back.
The closer we come to our nobler instincts and deeper yearnings, the more crucial it is not to look down, but we can’t help it.  It’s easier just to shuffle through Wal-Mart.  It’s easier to remember fat Elvis.

(One item that Marcus frequently mentions but has no answer for is how, especially in the South, Elvis and Jesus are sometimes nearly interchangeable figures.  I think that the Elvis-Jesus connection is one that can be played in any number of unfortunate biblical directions, but there’s at least one that makes sense to me.  Elvis’s most enduring music gives voice to a longing for a better country, but one way to read the Presley biography is that the idea of the music couldn’t help but kill the man behind it.  It was too much, so Elvis had to die.)

For those less inclined to consider what Melville, Jonathan Edwards, Poe, Lincoln, and Elvis might have in common, Dead Elvis could prove to be a tedious read.  Greil Marcus has his fair share of haters, and even for me, a Marcus aficionado (connoisseur?), sentences like “irony [is] the alibi of desiccated modernism” come across as a little purple.  Then again, Elvis had that gold lamé suit, didn’t he?

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